“The Square”: vicious satire that starts out as a sermon on radical hospitality

This Sunday, I thought that a local church had a special service showing “13th”. a film I’ve already watched twice (Nov. 14, 2016 review — then I later saw the showing is Nov. 19). So I went to the one daily remaining showing of “The Square”, the new “morality play” and vicious (conservative) satire by Swedish director Ruben Ostlund; and, expecting an exploration of Christian personal values about other people, expected that to become my sermon and church, on a lively Sunday morning at Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax VA (there is a church service there in a rented theater).

The title refers to an exhibit in a Stockholm museum, the “X-Royal” (for a reason), a bordered white space you could step onto as a safe space, a “sanctuary of trust and caring”.

The lead is Christian (Claes Bang), an attractive slender married heterosexual man in his 40s with two young daughters, who espouses a Leftist philosophy of ultimate charity for the needy, particularly for street panhandlers.  But like many on the Left, he is not above wielding power for its own sake, especially sexually over women, as shown in one confrontation where one of his partners challenges him about the time he went inside her. The movie starts precariously enough (after an initial anti-establishing shot of a homeless man on the streets of the perfect EU welfare state), as he is about to speak publicly, and another woman toys with his chest hair to attach a microphone.  In this movie, you notice these things.

As far as the space, I’m reminded of a huge maze exhibit at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain in late April, 2001, when I visited.  A young man from Brazil stood behind me in line and said that the whole point of this “sculptor” was to make you wait in line so you can “feel like shit.”

Very early in the film, Christian is robbed of his cell phone, wallet and cufflinks, in what seems like a setup confrontation in the streets.  (As I wrote this an fumbled my own iPhone its flashlight came on for the first time ever.)  Soon Christian is challenged to practice what he preaches. He inveigles his tag team hhsidekick Michael (Christopher Laesso) to support him, ultimately in a bizarre effort to hand deliver a letter to every family in a walkup apartment accusing them of the theft.

The film turns into a 140-minute sequence of skits, often with bizarre rhythmic sound effects, exploring the whole issue of how we personally treat people whom we perceive as weaker than ourselves. There is an experiment where museum visitors are challenged to prove they “trust people” by leaving their phones and wallets out in the open on the Square.

Whatever plot structure there is, gets driven by two attractive young male journalists (Daniel Hallberg and Martin Soder) who, in an early presentation, explain how you make content go viral, not only with original perspective but with some shock effect to get a visitor’s attention. So they come up with a video of a blond little girl holding a cat who gets blown up, with some Arabic warnings at the end. It seems that maybe this was hacked. But I was reminded of LBJ’s 1964 ad challenging Barry Goldwater with a mushroom cloud. That may cost Christian his job, which seems especially timely now.

But near the end there is a skit at a dinner, where attendees are challenged to do with “survival mom” type threats.  A man, his body completely waxed smooth (“thmooth”, he’s in the movie posters), comes into the dinner acting threatening, walking on all fours like a pre-human ape, with props. The guests are challenged to remain calm and inconspicuous so they can let somebody else take the threat (think about Las Vegas and Paddock Oct. 1)   But the scene winds up with attempted rape.

Somewhere in the middle there is a skit about the ALS ice bucket challenge. They have no monopoly on this “chain letter” which doesn’t even need a refrigerator’s ice maker.

Wiki picture of the actual museum in Stockholm.  I visited the city in Aug. 1972,

Picture: Occupy DC, December 2011 (mine).

Name:  “The Square
Director, writer:  Ruben Ostlund
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1  in Swedish, subtitles
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, Fairfax VA, 2017/11/12, Sunday morning
Length:  142
Rating:  R
Companies:  Magnolia Pictures
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, November 12, 2017 at 5:30 PM EST)

“Stopping Traffic”: The emotion on the sex trafficking issue is there, but with no legal controversy details (like Backpage v. Section 230)

Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking”, directed by Sadhvi Siddali Shree (or Siddhayatan Tirth), comes across as a propaganda piece about sex trafficking, and pleas for people to join “a movement” so to speak, but it doesn’t get into the specifics very much on how really to deal with it very much,

The director says she is a female monk, from India, and I guess that’s interesting. At the end of the film there are about ten things that can be done.  One is punishing the customers (we do that with prostitution and certainly with child pornography already)m another is to “volunteer”, but what a “volunteer” would do specifically I’m not sure.

There are many personal testimonials, including a middle-aged man from Australia who says he was abused as a boy but the consequences for him personally didn’t mount up until he had grown and had to deal with why this had happened.

The film also does describe the horrors of kidnapping children abroad in various countries, including Thailand and Mexico, and raising them in the sex-slave culture where they never learn anything else.

The film presents both male and female victims. In rural Afghanistan, even under the Taliban, despite external anti-gay Muslim culture, young boys are abused in a secret culture that says “girls are for procreation, boys are for fun.”  To its credit, the film is in no way homophobic;  this is about underage exploitation, not sexual orientation (much like the NBC series “To Catch a Predator”).

The film has live shots in many places, but particularly Thailand, Mexico, and Texas.  It presents the idea that Houston particularly is a center of sex trafficking.

There would have been an opportunity to look at specific legal controversies, especially with the Backpage.com website, which never gets mentioned.   The US House and Senate have drafted bills, with the House’s more threatening, that would weaken Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act (also part of the previously named Communications Decency Act) which treats service providers as utilities rather than as publishers of user-generated content, thereby absolving service providers of any downstream liability for user-generated content.  Without such downstream exposure protections, providers presumably could not take the risk of allowing user-generated content, although a “knowlingly” standard, such as with child pornography today, could be a good compromise. There is also a difference, operationally, between, say, an ad-seeking website like Backpage or Craigslist, and a shared hosting company like Blue Host; the risks would be very different. The film never goes near this. But most issue-oriented advocacy films try to recruit public interest and stay at simpler intellectual levels.

Other coordinated posts on Backpage problem:  Mine on news blog, mine on House Bill, Senate Bill

Ashton Kutcher testimony (“Real men don’t buy girls” — why isn’t “a+k” in the film?

Thailand scene 1 (Wiki, rice paddies?)

Bangkok scene 2 (Wiki)

Name: Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking
Director, writer:  Siddhayatan Tirth
Released: 2017
Format:  1.85:1  much of film in Spanish with subtitles
When and how viewed:  AMC Hoffman Center, 2017/10/3, only person in audience
Length:  79
Rating:  NA
Companies:  independent by individual owner, Siddhayatan Tirth
Link:  official

(Posted: Wednesday, October 4, 2017 at 11 AM EDT)

“Hearststone”: brooding drama about gay teens in rural Iceland recalls my own history of upward affiliation

Heartstone” (“Hjartasteinn”, 2016) by Guomundur Arnar Guomundsson, broods as it presents a somewhat tragic friendship between two teenage boys growing up in if fishing villag.    (Dyrhoaey) in Iceland.  It reminds me of the novella and 1972 film “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles.

Christian (Blaer Henrikkson) is the outgoing, bigger, more mature, and strong boy, already setting up sleepovers as he starts to date a girl in a nearby family, even as his parents’ marriage teeters,  Thor (Baldur Einarrson) admires him, and feels Christian is inviting a certain degree of intimacy.  There is a scene early with a mild form of body joking.

Thor, as shown, still seems preprubescent; his voice really hasn’t changed yet.  In European countries, the age of consent is usually lower than in the U.S., so this may seem more acceptable in Europe than with some American viewers.

The tensions grow as the film develops, as summer yields to fall and the snow flurries of approaching winter.  There is a spectacular shot of sheep being corralled from a distance, against the coastal mountains, almost as if from a Thomas Hardy novel, but it leads to farm aid outdoor camping encounters among the two families, and finally a rappelling scene where Thor retrieves some eaglet eggs along some cliffs, and almost has an accident. In the meantime, Thor experiences the familiar (to me) tensions of a gay teen admiring, through upward affiliation, a straight boy whom everybody expects to get married (traditionally) and have his own family.  It is such déjà vu.

Instead, Christian breaks, and admits to his girl friend that he may be gay himself. Like Thor, he could have to face the homophobia of a small village. Maybe it’s better to move to the big city, Reykjavik.

The film then skirts with tragedy for a climax, and it may be too much of a spoiler to state it.

Icelandic fishing village (Wiki).

The film shows very little if any modern technology; the story seems like it could be set in the 1950s.  There are lots of scenes involving animals:  “free fish”, unusual insects and arthropods (one that chews off its legs to free itself), and birds and nests.

Name:  “Heartstone”
Director, writer:  Guomundur Arnar Guomundsson
Released:  2016; DVD on 2017/10/10
Format:  2.35:1     Language: Icelandic, subtitles
When and how viewed:  Vimeo screener from distributor, 2017/9/30
Length:  129
Rating:  NA (prob. R;, maybe NC-17 some complete nudity; in no way pornographic, but dramatic and artistic, but intended for adults)
Companies:  Breaking Glass Pictures
Link:  Broadway

(Posted: Saturday, September 30, 2017 at 1 PM EDT)

“The Ornithologist”: gay outdoor road “horror” film with a clue about resurrection

The Ornithologist” (“O Orintologo”), directed by Brazilian Joao Pedro Rodrigues. Is a gay road spiritual-and-horror (both) movie centered around an appealing outdoorsman who goes on a bizarre, dream-like journey with bizarre and shocking experiences.  Structurally, the film is very similar to each to the last two short stories in my own “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book (that is, “Expedition” and “The Ocelot the Way He Is”).

Fernando (Paul Hamy) is a tall and slender man about 40 observing black stork birds around a river in northern Portugal, probably not too far from the Fatima site, which I visited in April 2001.   He gets cell phone calls reminding him to take his meds (is that Truvalda?) He kayaks alone and has a mishap.  Two pilgrims (for Fatima) from China find him at night, and at first take care of him. They hear weird ritualistic noises in the distance.  Then the story gets weird. The girls tie him up, then let him go, and he finds his stuff has been stolen near the river.  He meets another gay man who calls himself Jesus, who is deaf.  At first they strike a friendship of sorts, but conflict develops and there is an altercation, apparently leading to an accidental stabbing of Jesus.

Fernando’s adventures will take him around people wearing masks with tribal rituals, and finally into a bizarre death experience with his own resurrection.  Is this what can happen when we go?  The movie ends in Padua, Italy with the men in their next lives.  The film makes references to the writings of St Anthony of Padua in the 13th Century.

The film has a lot of nudity and bizarre effects reminding one of David Lynch’s direction of “Twin Peaks”.

The kayaking was spectacular.  Jack Andraka, Stanford student and inventor of a new cancer test, is an avid competitive kayaker.

Padua (wiki)

Fatima basilica (wiki_

The film showed at NY and AFI film festivals.

Name: The Ornithologist
Director, writer:  Joao Pedro Rodrigues
Released:  2017/10/3  DVD availability from Strand
Format:  2.35:1  (in Portuguese, Latin, Chinese with subtitles; much in English also)
When and how viewed:  complimentary screener from Strand
Length:  118
Rating:  NA (would be NC-17; artistic and not pornographic, but intended for adults)
Companies:  Strand Releasing
Link:  official 

(Posted: Wednesday, September 27, 2017, at 1:30 PM EDT)

ELIAN: the controversy over returning a little boy to Castro’s Cuba in 2000

ELIAN” (2017), directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell, tells the biographical story of Elian Gonzalez, now 23, who became the topic of an international controversy over immigration from Cuba late in the Clinton administration.

The film starts with the amateur boatlift in November 1999 of Elian’s mother and boyfriend, when the mother drowns (not being able to swim), and 5-year-old Elian is rescued (almost as if he were Moses) and brought to Miami.

The film gives a quick history of the rise of Fidel Castro and the expropriation of the wealthy, who fled to Florida in the late 50s.  It covers the Bay of Pigs but oddly omits mention of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  But the film covers the political effects of the anti-communist “right wing” in Miami on the Cuban issues, to the point that it sometimes could lead to political violence on both sides, with rather zombie-like behavior from crowds. It doesn’t directly mention the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, which led for calls for people to host asylum seekers in some southern states.

The film returns to the narrative of Elian. Back in Cuba, Elian’s father starts the legal process to get Elian back, and soon a public legal battle erupts between the dad and the “extended family” in Miami.  Attorney General Janet Reno gets involved (the film mentions Reno’s role in Waco in 1993) with her determination to apply the law literatlly.   In a rogue video, Elian gives some evidence of wanting to go back. But later he records an indoor video saying he wants to stay in the U.S.

Eventually the courts decide to return Elian to Cuba and considerable controversy happens, with demonstrations, after the “shock force” INS raid necessary for Elian’s repatriation. The scenes in the film get pretty violent.  I don’t recall this from the news accounts.

The film maintains that the Elian incident helped Florida go for Bush, after the recounts.  But the film also brings up the fiasco with the chads in Palm Beach County.

Elian, as a grown man, is dedicated “to the people” and to modern communism, not to differentiating himself from others for his own sake (however articulate and charismatic his personal manner seems). Yet he was made what he is today in Miami, the film says. At the end, he addresses Cuban youth. “The American dream” was not for him;  a future Cuban revolution may be so.

Name:  “ELIAN
Director, writer:  Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1, much footage is cropped
When and how viewed:  CNN, 2017/8/24
Length:  107
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  CNN, Gravitas Venturas
Link:  CNN

(Posted: Friday, Aug. 25, 2017 at 12:15 AM EDT)

“I, Olga Hepnarova”: In the 1970s, a bullied Czeck woman becomes a terrorist

I, Olga Hepnarova”, directed by Tomas Weinrab and Petr Kazda, is  brutal-to-watch account of a terror incident in Prague on July 10, 1973, which happens to be my 30th birthday.

Olga (Michalina Olszanska) is a 20-something woman who grew up in a “good home” in Communist Czechoslovakia, but was repeatedly bullied for non-conformity (not available to men). She wanders through psychiatric facilities and a dorm-based job before dropping out and plotting her revenge. The black-and-white film has two explicit lesbian scenes early and middle.

She writes a brief paper “manifesto” where she plans revenge.  A little more than an hour into the film, she drives a truck onto a sidewalk, as the camera shows the people falling to the side. This anticipates several terror attacks that have happened in the past two years, not all of them Islamist (the one in Times Square was not).  She asks for the death penalty and her hanging body, viewed, is shown at the end.  She uses the German word Prugelknabs, for victims of bullying.

Her rhetoric hits on an existential point, that when a “random” civilian gets in the crosshairs of a terrorist, that person pays personally as there is no way to undo this.  Imagine that idea in conjunction with Pulse in Orlando.  Terrorists view all civilians as conscripted combatants, if as a result of karma.

This is an unpleasant film to watch.  But some audiences will want to see documentary accounts of wha made someone like James Holmes go mad.

There is some discussion of mental illness and schizophrenia.  In some ways, Olga reminds me of a couple of female patients at NIH during my stay there in the fall of 1962.  There is an early scene where she tells a therapist that she doesn’t like people or find much value in ordinary interpersonal relations.

Modern Prague (Wiki).

Name: I, Olga Hepnarova
Director, writer:  Tomas Weinrab and Petr Kazda
Released:  2016
Format:  1.81:1, black and white, Czech
When and how viewed:  complimentary Vimeo private screener from distributor, 2017/7/22; DVD available 7/25
Length:  104
Rating:  R
Companies:  Strand Releasing
Link:  Strand, Movietimes

(Posted: Saturday, July 22, 2017 at 1 PM)

“City of Ghosts”: conflict journalism from Raqqa, difficult to watch

The “City of Ghosts” is Raqqa, Syria; this new film by Matthew Heineman is one of the most intense about up-close conflict ever made. It is tough to watch, even with a nearly sold-out audience, which applauded at the end. It reminded me of Kathryn Bigelow and “The Hurt Locker”.

And, specifically, the movie is about conflict journalism, a group called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silenty”.

It’s pretty much a truism, that when you throw out one repressive regime with a revolution, the replacement is even more despotic. It happened to Czarist Russia, and it happened to Iran. As the film starts, we see life in this desert city on the Euphrates, from Biblical times, a low-rise city of concrete, stucco and ovals, and Muslim colors – during the Arab Spring, fomented by US social media.

The residents hardly understood what had happened as the Islamic State, ISIL, moved in and took over.

A group of journalists, including a former math teacher, started photo journals. As soon as the pressure was on, they scattered to Turkey and Germany. At least one journalist had his father and brothers targeted and executed. In Germany, police approached that journalist about putting in some kind of witness protection. Eventually, some get refugee status in Germany.

The film covers the professional production values of ISIS recruiting meda, but it doesn’t really show why young Muslim men abroad, especially in Europe, are so easily fooled. It also doesn’t show daily life in Raqqa the way the CNN special “Blindsided” by Fareed Zakaria and Jurgen Todenhofer had.

Raqqa picture (Wiki).

QA of director by the Washington Post.

Name:  “City of Ghosts
Director, writer: Matthew Heineman
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1, Arabic with subtitles below wide-scr image
When and how viewed:  Landmark E St, 2017/7/15, evening, near sell-out, small auditorium
Length:  92
Rating: NA (“R” for extreme conflict violence in a few scenes)
Companies:  Amazon Studios, IFC
Link:  official

(Picture: Mine, in Nevada, 2012).

(Posted: Sunday, July 16, 2017, at 1:45 PM).

“Nowhere to Hide”: close-up video by a male nurse on the implosion in Iraq after Obama pulled the troops out

The film “Nowhere to Hide”, directed by Zaradhasht Ahmed, presents the incredible 5-year video diary of an Iraqi male nurse, Nori Sharif, over five years in Diyala province, around the town of Jalawla, in the five years after President Obama pulled American troops from Iraq and left a power vacuum.

It seems incredible that he could even maintain this diary as battlefield conditions redeveloped around him. It’s not obvious which subgroup he belongs to (maybe Sunni), but violence between Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds first develops. But in time ISIL moves into the area and forces all the civilians, including him and his family, to flee. He and his family wind up in a refugee camp of trailers, even one housing 20 people and several families.

Eventually he returns to he hospital in Jalawla and finds it sacked and trashed.

The film shows the breathtaking desert landscapes, rather like Nevada with mountains in the far distance, and Biblical stucco villages – filled with squalor and poverty as the camera goes up close. The pain is unrelenting.

The film also shows horrific war injuries to civilians still alive, beyond verbal description.

Wiki picture of Mosul dam.

Name:  “Nowhere to Hide”
Director, writer:  Zaradhasht Ahmed
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Pop-Up, Union Market, Washington DC, 2017/7/7
Length:  88
Rating:  NA
Companies:  East Village Films
Link:  theater

(Posted: Saturday, July 8, 2017 at 11 AM EDT)

“Moscow Never Sleeps”: a great opportunity to “see” Moscow

Moscow Never Sleeps” is a new film by Irish director Johnny O’Reilly, who says he spent a dozen years living in Moscow as Putin gradually consolidated power. He thinks the city is fascinating, and it is still rarely visited by Americans because of fear of hostility and maybe arrest.

O’Reilly’s film is in Robert Altman style, presenting intersecting stories of the everyday lives of a few characters.  American films like this might include “Short Cuts” (1993), or Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (1999), although this film is shorter at 100 minutes.

It starts in an operating room where an old sot Valeriey (Yuriy Sotyanov) refuses coronary bypass surgery and insists on going back to his pub crawls despite having only a few weeks to live this way. There is an oligarchy businessman Anton (Aleksey Serebryakov) who seeks the freedom of part-time life in New York, doing his deals from afar where Putin can’t get to him. But most of the rest of the stories involve mundane things.  A son puts his mom into assisted living, where she has to deal with loss of privacy and dignity, and wonders why mom didn’t help grandma more.  The mom returns home for a visit (unusual in real life).  A young woman reenters the lives of rivals and seeks personal revenge.  This film has parallel two drink poisoning scenes.

The people are not all that likable, and are not doing particularly well in Russia’s grubby, hierarchal economy based on right-sizing. But the film gives us a wealth of long shots of Moscow, including drone aerials (this was a trick, to get past authorities), with views of long ring expressways.  There are long cityscapes of ornate low-rise apartments, giving way to highrises, with islands of skyscrapers in the distance.  The effect is that of a city on another planet, an alien world. The events in the story center around Moscow City Day, which is the first Saturday in September. It’s still warm (24 C) but won’t be for long.  The film indeed provides a practical way to see Moscow without the risk and expense of going there.

I do recall films like “Gorky Park” (where some of this new film was shot) and “Moscow on the Hudson” from the 80s.

Wikipedia link for Evolution Tower.

Director QA

1  (my question about the 2013 anti-gay propaganda law)

2

Facts:

Name: Moscow Never Sleeps
Director, writer:  Johnny O’Reilly
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1   in Russian, with subtitles
When and how viewed:  Landmark E Street, Washington, 2017/7/1, sold out
Length:  100
Rating:  NA (R)
Companies:  Snapshot films
Link:  official site

(Posted: Sunday, July 2, 2017 at 3 PM EDT)

“Heli”: a young factory worker in Mexico protects his sister after she accidentally draw him into a drug ring

Heli” is a gut-punching dramatic film about involuntary family responsibility in the third world, specifically rural Mexico in an area overrun by drug cartels. The film (in Spanish with subtitles) is directed and written by Amat Escalante, with other writers Gabriel Reyes, Zumurt Cavusgolu, and Ayhan Ergusel. The film was shot in 2013 and has shown in Cannes and Sundance and is now becoming available on DVD from Strand Releasing (June 27).

Heli (Armando Espitia) is a an slender, appealing young man, about 20 with wife Sabrina (like the 1955 film name, Linda Gonzalez), 12 year old sister Estela (Andrea Vergara), and father (Ramon Alvarez). Dad works at the local auto assembly plant, which looks very modern (and perhaps tried to take American jobs – to Donald Trump’s consternation) and Heli has been working the night shift for some time. Estetla has a boy friend Belo (Juan Eduardo Palacios) who seems to be going through paramilitary training (maybe from a drug cartel) where he is forced to roll in his own chunky vomit.

Belo stores drugs in the family’s house, and when Heli finds them, he destroys them by throwing them into a well. But soon the house is raided, we think by police but they may be drug dealers disguised as troops. Dad is shot, and the rest of the family, as well as Belo, are captured.

The film’s middle section has one of the most graphic torture scenes ever filmed I’m recalling New Line’s “Rendition”, where Jake Gyllenhaal’s character witnesses “my first torture”) in which Belo’s private parts are set on fire, as if to imply permanent castration and epilation, and affront to “the virtue of maleness”. But soon Belo dies and his corpse is hung from a bridge in a public lynching.

The film had opened with a shot of Belo and Estela in the back of a pickup truck, leading to the lynching, as a prologue before the opening titles, a story preview familiar from the films of Jorge Ameer.

Heli is spared with worst but still injured. He eventually talks to police and is in the position of being the sole protector of his younger sister as well as wife and baby. The sister has become pregnant. Heli’s injuries cause him to be inefficient working on the factory assembly line, and soon he gets fired. But, as in typical screenwriting, he must prevail.

A reasonable comparison could be made to Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film “Traffic“.

Guanajuato archeological site, near where film was shot (Wiki).

Name:  “Heli
Director, writer:  Amat Escanante
Released:  2013, 2017
Format: 1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Strand private screener on Vimeo, 2017/6/22, DVD BluRay available 2017/6/27
Length:  105
Rating:  R
Companies:  Strand Releasing
Link:  BluRay

Picture: Big Bend, mine (Thanksgiving 1979 Sierra Club camping trip, looking into Mexico).

(Posted: Friday, June 23, 2017 at 10:300 AM EDT)